How We Choose Who To Sit Next To


How do you choose who you sit next to on a train or bus?
A Victoria University researcher has been studying how we make the choice and why.

One of the things that is always fascinating to watch on the train is how incoming passengers glance around nervously and quickly weigh up who they would like to sit next to – if they have a choice.

I made a bad choice in the last week of the train service by sitting next to someone who turned out to have the worst BO I have encountered for a while!

It’s always hard to know what to do. Getting up and shifting is pretty rude as it’s so obvious!

A PhD thesis by a Victoria university graduate on how we react on public transport shows no surprises to those of us who are regular users but may give companies some insight into how seating could be improved to make people enjoy the experience better.

Dr Jared Thomas’ findings show the seating layout of public transport forces people into an intimate distance with strangers, causing a degree of social discomfort.  He watched 1703 people on Wellington trains and buses and talked to 900 commuters about what seats they chose and why.

“I found that people use a range of interactive strategies to adapt to this close yet impersonal social situation, including defensive behaviours such as reading, listening to music or talking on cell phones, which restricts their ability to engage with their fellow travellers. Others adapt with physically defensive behaviours such as putting their bag on the seat next to them, which also reduces their ability to socially interact.”

Dr Thomas said there is evidence that interactive strategies—such as talking and positive body language with other passengers—are more successful than defensive strategies at reducing social discomfort.

“Much like reading a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, defensive strategies may make the time pass more quickly, but they do not necessarily reduce the underlying discomfort of the situation.” Interactive strategies are used by around one-quarter of commuters, but more would interact if there were fewer barriers to interaction, he says.

Part of the problem is that social niceties, such as smiling and greetings, are ignored in a crowded public transport setting.“ Another key barrier to social interaction is the seat layout of both buses and trains. Most passengers are offered seats immediately beside one another, where facing each other to communicate important non-verbal signals is awkward.

These passengers are about 30% less likely to engage in a conversation than those sitting in other layouts, such as those passengers that are facing each other.”

Dr Thomas, who is himself a public transport user, is currently working for Opus as a transport researcher. He says his research could be used by public transport agencies, passengers, and those who design carriages and buses.

How do you make your choice?




  1. Parsley72 says:

    When I read on the train it’s because I want to read, not because I’m avoiding social interaction!

  2. Matt L says:

    I use the train regularly and normally have the luxury of getting to pick an empty set of seats to sit in, in that regard I don’t get a choice about who sits next to me but I do find it interesting to see who does. I usually am either using my phone to surf the web/listen to music or am looking out the window at the works going on around the network (I’m on the western line)

  3. Greg Bodnar says:

    Interesting. I’ve made numerous friends and had a couple of relationships with people on my regular bus routes. I might be a statistical outlier, though. Aside from that, I consider my bus journey to be time to catch up on email, news and technical magazines. Much more useful time than sitting behind the wheel on the motorway.

  4. Brent C says:

    When catching the Capital Connection train, I find people a lot more friendly. This is as people sit in groups of 4 with a table in the middle. However when catching suburban trains and buses, there has to be a reason for talking to someone (such as an ice breaker) to make contact.

  5. Christopher says:

    I often catch the Link bus. The seats available depend on time of day (obviously), but my MO is to scan as one moves into the bus. If the first seat on the right moving into the bus is free I take that. Otherwise I move to the back and take a seat in that section next to a window.

    People generally aren’t friendly on buses - except for when it comes to directing tourists, as the Link bus goes past some tourist destinations. It’s then that some people really start to assist tourists, which is great to see.

  6. Joshua says:

    agree, have always wondered why they all face forward, it would also create a sense of more space if you had the seats back to back. Something you can see on alot of the melbourne trams.

  7. Nathaniel flick says:

    Interesting the researcher is biased toward the extroverted side of things. The bus is like an apt building in that if you make friends and it goes wrong you are then stuck with a bad situation you can’t get away from. I have met more riders at the bus stop than the bus itself, Much more reason to converse.

    Sometimes you just want to read your book in peace, other times it’s great to have bus friends, just like life.

  8. Su Yin Khoo says:

    @Joshua: The forward-facing thing is probably due to space constraints? I find that I tend to knock knees more when seated on a face-to-face seat

  9. Matt L says:

    @Joshua I also think forward facing seats are to do with what people want to do. Most people probably want to be able to see where they are going rather than where they have come from. Not such an issue on a train as the ride is normally smoother

  10. jarbury says:

    I hate travelling backwards as it makes me feel motion sick, so I’m quite glad that there generally aren’t more backwards facing seats. Generally on my buses there are a few people that I know vaguely (sometimes Brian Rudman or Cam Pitches from CBT end up on my bus and I chat with them), but generally I actually want my bus trip to be a peaceful time to listen to music, check internet things on my phone and so forth.

    I wonder if the study found that people choose to sit next to good looking passengers?

  11. sydneyhasatunnel says:

    Brian Rudman, Cam Pitches! Wow. On my train I’ve been in the same carriage as Lucy Lawless, Dave Dobbyn, Russell Norman and once Valerie Vili - but I didn’t talk to her.

  12. Kelvin says:

    Interesting study. I too hate travelling backwards and although money constraints are always going to be a hindrance to design - how many ways can you design seating for rectangular tins shifting people anyway? There is only facing each other or forward surely. And yes the knee thing is definately an issue.

  13. Owen Thompson says:

    I hate the backward facing seats, as you have less privacy.

  14. Scott says:

    @Kelvin. There a quite a few ways.
    -In Hong Kong trains all the seats are along the walls and face sideways.
    -Hong kong trams have sideways bench seating on the ground floor (I think the wheel arches are under them) ans 2×1 seating on the top floor.
    - I quite like the design of the few single seats on the left side of the link. The extra floor space makes the bus hold more standees and feel more spacious in general.

    - The seat pitch is a major factor in deciding where i sit. I am tall and hate having my knees touching the seat in front. Some seats are worse than other, and some older buses are all really bad. Trains are much better.


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